TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel, warily watching the advance of Islamist terrorists across Iraq, appears to be inching toward supporting independence for Kurdistan, a position that would put it at odds with the United States over the partition of Iraq.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called for it. And while Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, backpedaled from the comment Monday, analysts here say Netanyahu is just recognizing what is already taking place.
Ofra Bengio, a professor at Tel Aviv University who has written two books about the Kurds, said Netanyahu is cannily navigating the changing Middle East.
“The Obama administration still believes it is possible to keep Iraq unified and integrated, and reality tells a different story,” she said. “Israel is aware of this reality.”
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Netanyahu’s call Sunday for Kurdish independence came just days after Israel bought a delivery of oil directly from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
This is possible because of another rapid shift: Kurds have expanded into oil-rich territory in Iraq, and Turkey has mended ties with the Iraqi Kurdish government, even allowing the Kurds to export oil via Turkey, bypassing the Iraqi government.
Israel was Kurdistan’s first customer. By accepting the oil in the southern port of Ashkelon, Israel gave financial backing to the Kurdish region.
The United States has disapproved of direct Kurdish oil sales, fearing that bypassing the central government in Baghdad will only accelerate the crumbling of a united Iraq.
“It is upon us to support the international efforts to strengthen Jordan and support the Kurds’ aspiration for independence,” Netanyahu said Sunday.
Israel and the Kurds have a long history, based on mutual suspicion of the region’s Arab nations.
However, the sale of oil and Netanyahu’s comments Sunday broke the tradition of keeping the cooperation covert and hinted at a more assertive Israeli position on the issue of Kurdish independence.
Israel helped train Kurdish rebels in the 1960s and is home to about 200,000 Jews of Kurdish descent. This community organized relief to the Kurds during the 1991 Gulf War.
Kurds are not the only parties looking to redraw the map of the Middle East.
The group that had been known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced Sunday it had declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that would stretch across the Muslim world and was dropping the nation designations from its title.
ISIS has titled one of its promotional videos “The End of Sykes-Picot,” a reference to the secret 1916 agreement between England and France that carved up the Middle East into its modern borders.
Shlomo Brom, former director of the strategic-planning division of the Israeli army, said Netanyahu has a countervision: to help break up Iraq, and possibly Syria, into small, weak states that would pose no threat to Israel.
Unlike Israelis who hail from Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran or Syria, Kurdish Israelis maintain contact with their homeland. This makes Netanyahu’s comment all the more exciting, as it concerns a region they can still visit.